Hempstead Lake State Park: Department of Environmental Conservation Documents and Intervention

SEPTEMBER 2018 by Brien Weiner

In the 2017 October and December Skimmers, we described our objections to proposed “improvements” at Hempstead Lake State Park (HLSP) including the loss of wetlands, the removal of trees, and the creation of new trails. The project continues to be a volatile issue. For those readers new to the issue, the HLSP project is part of the Living with the Bay (LWTB) project, the original purpose of which was to mitigate flooding along the Mill River from HLSP to Bay Park. LWTB is overseen by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with a grant of $125 million for Sandy recovery. GOSR has allocated $34.5 million of that grant to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) for HLSP, much of which is designated for increasing recreational use rather than flood mitigation.

SSAS filed Freedom of Information Law requests to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in December 2017 and May 2018 for documents related to the HLSP project. We were sent a CD of documents and visited the DEC office in Stony Brook to photocopy additional documents. From e-mail correspondence between GOSR and the DEC in August 2017, we learned that GOSR admitted to “segmentation” of the HLSP project from the restoration of the Mill River, while lumping the remaining projects in a “Frankenstein” report. Segmentation is prohibited by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) because of the need to assess cumulative impacts. We also learned that GOSR was in a rush for a negative declaration of environmental impact on HLSP, but the DEC said there was insufficient mitigation, especially for the wetlands.

We believe that the comments provided by SSAS contributed to the precautions being taken by the DEC, especially since the DEC files included a copy of the SSAS letter that detailed the ways in which the HLSP project met the requirements for significant environmental impact according to SEQRA, and the environmental issues that needed to be addressed. Four other Long Island Audubon chapters and NYC Audubon signed onto our letter.

Nevertheless, there was other disturbing information in the documents:

In GOSR’s Tree Removal Application, 1050 trees will be removed for the Hempstead Lake and South Pond dams; this is less than the original 1200, but still a substantial number (an additional 1800 trees are designated for removal from the North Ponds area and 100 trees for a “greenway” through the park). There are references to an emergency action plan if the dam starts to fail, and to an arborist to prevent damage to the trees during construction, but during a tour given by OPRHP on May 12 we were told neither of the measures were in place.

The application states that tree removal will take place from 11/1 to 3/31 to avoid impacts on bats and migratory birds, but HLSP is a hot spot for migratory birds in March, as well as nesting grounds for our Great Horned Owls. Further, stump removal will take place year-round, which will disrupt nesting birds and ground foragers. The DEC comments that an absence of data does not mean that rare or state-listed (as endangered or threatened) bat species do not occur; the DEC recommends leaving all snag and cavity tress, and cautions that there may be other species and habitats requiring surveys and permits.

In a North Ponds report, the DEC recommends reducing the dredging of the Northwest Pond to minimize the loss of wet meadow, and mitigating the loss of red maple swamp for the sediment basin in the Northeast Pond. A February 2018 Louis Berger corporation report discusses reusing the dredged material from the North Ponds for the berms. A letter dated March 1, 2018 from the DEC says much of the dredged material will be too contaminated for reuse. DEC meeting notes from March 20, 2018 discuss reusing the dredged material and capping the contaminated parts (adding $7 million to the cost of about $9 million). We need clarification regarding disposal or capping of contaminated sediments, and if capping is not financially feasible, we need to know if the alternative is sufficient to prevent further contamination.

The contractor Cashin Associates requested an exemption from cleaning up dioxin because of cost; the DEC thankfully denied the request. All the sediment testing required by the DEC is expensive and we need to know whether GOSR properly allocated the money. The Louis Berger report presents scores for wetlands improvement but does not explain the criteria for its scores.

The plans for the ponds have changed substantially several times. The plans call for constructing concrete sediment basins and bermed edges along wetlands, which goes against recent trends and the goal to restore the Mill River with green infrastructure. Moreover, the plans describe how large volumes of water (and the floatables with them) will flow over the floatables catcher. The plans recognize the need to catch floatables at their source but maintain that it is outside OPRHP’s jurisdiction.

The plans state that the most feasible cleanup will involve capture and removal of all larger floatables and bulk materials along the shores and in low-lying forested areas along the ponds, based on economic restrictions. However, the plans also acknowledge that excavating soils in and around the ponds in order to capture micro-debris and buried debris, or additional efforts to remove submerged debris and debris throughout the woodlands, would increase environmental benefit. We need to know the cost of a more-thorough cleanup. Removing contaminants should take priority over other HLSP goals like kayak launches and a new education center when an older building can be repurposed. Further, the floatables collected cannot be recycled unless they are relatively free of dirt, soil, and exterior wastes. There would be additional cost to sort materials by type and cleanliness, but added environmental benefit. Cleanup will have to be by hand because of the limited access for heavy equipment and the sensitivity of the environment, which raises the question: How does GOSR propose to do the dredging and berming?

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report identifies 26 species of migratory birds listed as Birds of Conservation Concern. It notes that Bald Eagles have been observed in the trees surrounding the North Ponds. The report is based on data from 2008 and 2011; there are probably more Birds of Conservation Concern using HLSP now due to land development and declining bird populations.

The plans describe how trees on the dams will be removed, leaving the roots to decompose and potentially compromising the integrity of the dam. We need to emphasize that prior to any modification of the dams, current seepage rates need to be determined; if modifications are to be made, they should be incremental so the effect on seepage can be determined.

Given the information from the DEC, SSAS urges our members to contact our local officials to protect the environment of HLSP, and consequently the health of the Mill River and the safety of its residents downstream, and to ensure that funds intended for Sandy recovery and flood mitigation are properly allocated. An open house on the HLSP Project, the plans for which were supposed to be 90% complete, was postponed until at least September because the plans were not ready. The Citizen’s Advisory Committee for LWTB attributes the slowdown to the need to address the environmental concerns voiced by SSAS. Please continue to attend GOSR’s meetings and events regarding HLSP, and make your voices heard.